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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

Track removal idea causing stir

Sunday, August 29, 2004

(Photo)
A Union Pacific train makes its way through downtown Sikeston.
SIKESTON - Over the years urban planning specialists and even casual observers have occasionally discussed how getting rid of the railroad tracks alongside Malone Avenue would benefit Sikeston and its potential for growth. But then, there is the other side of the story: Jobs.

This summer Union Pacific moved the idea from mere discussion to heated debate with the announcement it would like to abandon the tracks.

The tracks are now a dead-end spur ending at Steward Steel in Miner. "It used to go to all the way to Charleston," Mayor Mike Marshall recalled.

But now only two business remain that still use the tracks: Steward Steel and Tetra Pak. "The shipper (Tetra Pak) takes very few cars - very low density traffic, and the traffic is very short-haul," said Michael W. Payette, assistant vice president of government affairs for UP's central region. "If this were a high-revenue track, there would be no issue."

While Steward Steel has advised the city it does not want to lose its rail access, Tetra Pak says the tracks are indispensable for its operation.

"Tetra Pak's position is that this is not a burden on Union Pacific and it's critical to Tetra Pak," said Joe Blanton, legal counsel for Tetra Pak.

"Our raw material is paperboard and it comes in by rail. If the Union Pacific Railroad abandons this line, it will greatly increase our cost of obtaining this material and put us at a tremendous disadvantage in an extremely competitive market," explained John L. Bryant, plant manager for Tetra Pak. "We're very concerned about it and we've asked the city for help."

Tetra Pak takes in about 35 rail cars per month in supplies. "Shipping paper by truck is cost prohibitive," Blanton said. "Tetra Pak's position is that the status quo should be continued."

To abandon the track, Union Pacific must request permission from the Surface Transportation Board. If such a request is made, Tetra Pak will oppose it, Blanton said.

Several Tetra Pak plants have already closed over the last two years, Blanton noted. "There are only nine remaining in the whole world, three in the United States," Blanton said. "It is important for Tetra Pak to protect its investment and important for the city to protect one of its major employers."

Sikeston officials have already gone on record with the position that "if abandonment of the spur is going to hurt local businesses and industry, we don't want it to happen," according to City Manager Doug Friend. "When the end result is minus 100 jobs, that's not a good thing. We've got to support Tetra Pak - we can't lose those jobs."

Union Pacific officials are "still negotiating with the shipper," according to Payette. "The first offer that we made didn't work. We're still trying to work it out with them."

A letter from Scott Ringler, director of Union Pacific's marketing and sales center, to Tetra Pak officials confirms the railroad "has targeted March 1, 2005 for abandonment of the track extending east of the diamond in Sikeston, Mo., that serves your facility."

The diamond, located at the old Scott County Milling Company and Cargill, is where the two sets of tracks in Sikeston cross.

Ringler advised in the letter that the railroad "is willing to absorb the transloading costs that will be incurred" on shipments from Tetra Pak's main supplier, Weyerhaeuser in Longview, Wash., for one year following the abandonment date.

"We will work it out with the shipper one way or another before we do anything. In the best possible world, we would like to abandon it," Payette said. "But we're not going to push this if we can't work it out."

On the opposite end of the traffic scale are changes in the works for the north-south tracks in Sikeston which are owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, according to city officials.

"There's two issues going on," Marshall said. He explained Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific are discussing the possibility of Union Pacific leasing BNSF's tracks.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe would trade for some of Union Pacific's tracks out in Colorado and in exchange Union Pacific would take over the BNSF's Sikeston tracks.

"Number one, what they want to do is increase train traffic," Marshall said. The railroad would achieve this by having trains only run in one direction along a track - for example coming down south through Sikeston and back up north using the tracks at Chaffee.

The city officials have a couple of concerns related to this. "One, is lack of competition between the two railroads - it could affect our powerplant," Marshall said. The powerplant receives its coal shipments by rail. "It's good to have two railroads competing because you get them to compete with each other on rates," he said.

In addition to being an inconvenience for Sikeston residents, increased train traffic through the city would have an impact on public health and safety as ambulances, police and fire vehicles would have an higher chance of being blocked by a train, Friend said. "We need to ensure increased traffic will not affect those things," he said.

"Plus, laying on the whistles from Tanner Street to Matthews," Marshall added. While some whistle blows are required, some engineers seem to take pleasure in disturbing residents near tracks with excessive use of the whistle.

City officials want residents and business owners to know "we hear their concerns," Marshall said. "And we have real concerns about health and safety. We're trying to take a stand on that."